October 06, 2008

Depression Viewing

"Uncertain economic times" is putting it mildly. "The fundamentals of our economy are strong" is nearly laughable. I'm no doomsayer, but if we are really heading into something akin to the Great Depression, it can't hurt to know how it was portrayed in popular film the first time around, right? Maybe there someone will have a good 1930s movie on their hamsterwheel-powered ipod and I can watch it over their shoulder while we are both waiting in the breadline.

With that in mind, I posted to Mick LaSalle's blog as I do from time to time, and got a lot of great responses, from movies that dealt directly with the depression, to those that were mostly escapist entertainment at the time, and lots in between. I've only seen a handful of these, so I'm linking to their IMDB pages for reference. Thanks to all the regulars of that blog for the ideas.

If you have additions to the list, please post in the comments and I will update the list. I'd especially love to include more films from the early years of the great depression. Anyway, on to the list:

1931 The Champ imdb
1932 Shanghai Express imdb
1932 I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang imdb
1933 Lady for a Day imdb
1933 Golddiggers of 1933 imdb
1933 Duck Soup imdb
1933 Hallelujah I'm a Bum imdb
1934 It Happened One Night imdb
1934 The Thin Man imdb
1934 Stand Up and Cheer imdb
1935 The Bride of Frankenstein imdb
1935 David Copperfield imdb
1935 Les Miserables imdb
1936 My Man Godfrey imdb
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town imdb
1937 Big City imdb
1937 Dead End imdb
1938 Boy's Town imdb
1938 You Can't Take It With You imdb
1939 Gone With the Wind imdb
1939 Of Mice and Men imdb
1940 The Grapes of Wrath imdb
1941 Sullivan's Travels imdb
various films by the Three Stooges, Boris Karloff, Shirley Temple

July 09, 2008

Fade to Clear

Fade to Clear
Leonard Chang, 2004

This is my favorite of Chang's series of three Allen Choice detective novels. Like other great exemplars of the mystery genre, Fade to Clear is about truth and in many ways about literature. Someone's no doubt already written a dissertation on the special power of genre fiction to comment on itself and on fiction in general. Pretty much all my favorite detective stories play with this in some way, though not often as overtly as this one does.

Because this book surely wears its philosophy on its sleeve, positing a hero who (to grossly oversimplify) fights crime by day and reads Kierkegaard by night. The two earlier books in the series grapple with similar issues, but here it's laid out plainly: a detective's investigation and philosophical inquiry are two sides of the same coin. In particular, the detective Allen Choice attempts to understand human relationships and what they mean, his investigation and his reading of Kierkegaard moving along in parallel at first, then dovetailing quite elegantly near the end of the book. It's relatively rare in genre fiction to see a character evolve morally, and Chang accomplishes that here without dumbing down the character in any way.

Maybe I've overemphasized the philosophical angle too much ... this is also a very intense crime novel. Lots of action, romance, plot twists, harrowing situations, obsessions, betrayal. In particular, the mental and emotional stress of the main character leap right off the page, felt in his actions and dialogue as much as in the more reflective sections of prose. This makes him easy to identify with - sometimes so much so that my heart pounds hard in my chest as I read, something that rarely happens to me. The author keeps things tightly paced throughout, and it's surprising how easily the text flows from gun battles to domestic arguments to reflective passages like this:

The contours of grief are textured and serrated, and if you run your fingers over them, Braille-like to read the trajectory of sadness, you find the ridges rising and falling with small snags and depressions. They are never smooth; they cut your fingertips. You will leave a thin trace of blood.

Not exactly punchy terse emotionless Hammet prose, is it?

At the climax of the novel, a combination of violence, tragedy, and redemption through love, the action and the soul-searching seem all of a piece. That in itself is immensely gratifying to me as a reader. The Kierkegaard-reading isn't a gimmick (as in Philip Kerr's eye-rollingly lame A Philisophical Investigation), but a key part of a character-driven philosophical novel. Nor is the book archly and self-congratulatory about the mystery genre - it's a detective story because it should be, and the crime-novel medium gives rise to the philosophical inquiry as much as the other way around.

Definitely the best of the three novels in this series so far, though I've enjoyed them all. Read them now, before somebody makes a movie out of them.

Drat, Powell's ain't got it. Check your local library!

June 21, 2008

Death of Cody's

Well crap. Cody's is closing its doors for good. (Read the announcement here.)

When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, Cody's seemed like a miracle - everything a great bookstore should aspire to be. Over the years, I've had many friends who worked there, and I shopped at all four locations that they tried. My dad read poetry there once when I was a kid, even.

I remember when Barnes and Noble opened in Berkeley, everyone thought it was the death knell for the independent stores, but most survived pretty well (Cody's was probably the hardest hit, though, since its business depended on volume and depth). Never selling used books, Cody's kept holding on through the advent of Amazon, taking real estate risks in San Francisco, closing its Telegraph Avenue flagship store, courting new investors, etc.

I'll miss the bookstore a lot. I'll have to do some thinking about all the purchasing links in this blog - expect to see those updated soon.

UPDATE 23 JUNE: I'm happy to announce that I'll be linking to the great Powell's bookstore in Portland from now on.

June 20, 2008

Doc Savage

Doc Savage Omnibus 13
Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson

When I want to read something breezy and without the darker overtones of hardboiled detective stories (my usual genre fiction of choice), I often reach for a Doc Savage novel. These stories were published in pulp form first, in the 30s and 40s, pretty much all written by one man (as I understand it, he farmed out some of the stories to other authors, but then nearly always re-wrote them himself from scratch anyway). There are close to 200 of them in all, I think.

There are many pleasures to be found in these novels, not the least of which is the evocation of New York and the rest of the world in the 1930s (as sold to pulp-devouring working-class boys and men, at least). There is no doubt whatsoever that science and technology are unalloyed boons to mankind, that New York is the center of the planet, that the human mind and body can be perfected, that women are a nuisance, that "adventurer" is a laudable career choice, that the American way of life is superior to all others, that the world is full of exotic peoples and hidden treasures, etc. Reading a few of the books at a clip (they each take only 2-3 hours to read), you are instilled with an unambiguous set of values. These are surely moral adventures, in the American grain.

One way these books stand out from others of the same genre and time-period is that they place a high value on humor. This is mostly concentrated in the figures of Monk and Ham, two of Doc Savage's team of five highly-skilled adventurers, who insult and play practical jokes on each other at every opportunity. The lighter tone actually helps me treat some of the more difficult elements (misogyny, racism, and forced lobotomies, for example) as joking boyish silliness, making it easier to fogive than it might be otherwise. Plus, it's possible for the author to pull off things like the following, for my money one of the greatest pulp-novel lines ever written: "It was a secret door, in the best secret-door-in-a-cliff tradition." Really what more needs to be said about a book's frame of reference when it contains a line like that?

That line is from "The Green Master," one of the five stories in this omnibus collection, about the descendants of Incans living in an enclave in the Andes, who happen to have the power of mind-control. Naturally, they are no match for our ubermensch. The more notable novel is "Up From Earth's Center," which happens to be the last one Dent wrote, and it literally involves a trip to Hell and back - outlandish even by the Doc Savage standards.

One feature a lot of the books have is a lack of respect for denouement. Basically, once Doc bests his nemesis in a final confrontation, two or three sentences are enough to wrap things up. This can be frustrating to me at times, but on the other hand, there's really not much more to be said once the dust has settled. Got to leave readers chomping at the bit for the next installment.

June 18, 2008

Summer Heat

Sometimes Whitman says just what I'm thinking...

From sex—From the warp and from the woof;
(To talk to the perfect girl who understands me,
To waft to her these from my own lips—to effuse them from my own body;)
From privacy—from frequent repinings alone;
From plenty of persons near, and yet the right person not near;
From the soft sliding of hands over me, and thrusting of fingers through my hair and
From the long sustain’d kiss upon the mouth or bosom;
From the close pressure that makes me or any man drunk, fainting with excess;
From what the divine husband knows—from the work of fatherhood;
From exultation, victory, and relief—from the bedfellow’s embrace in the night;
From the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips, and bosoms,
From the cling of the trembling arm,
From the bending curve and the clinch,
From side by side, the pliant coverlid off-throwing,
From the one so unwilling to have me leave—and me just as unwilling to leave,
(Yet a moment, O tender waiter, and I return;)
—From the hour of shining stars and dropping dews,
From the night, a moment, I, emerging, flitting out,
Celebrate you, act divine—and you, children prepared for,
And you, stalwart loins.

May 24, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

directed by Otto Preminger, 1944

I've always enjoyed this movie, and I watched it a few days ago for the first time in a couple of years. I fully admit that the music is the main draw for me - David Raksin's score permeates the film thoroughly, and for me it's what answers the questions raised by the action on the screen.

The legend goes that Raksin was having extreme difficulty coming up with a suitable musical theme for the film, and the producer and director had Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" picked out as a substitute. Then, a couple of days before the score was due, Raksin's wife left him, he sat down at the piano, and the theme came out. Romantic story in the extreme, and perhaps deserving of its own Hollywood treatment.

The film is built on a mystery-thriller structure, contains noirish lighting and snappy dialogue, includes the postwar preoccupation with class differences, has a Jungian streak a mile wide, and has some of the most depressing and fatalistic views on love this side of "Sex and the City." It's also a meditation on the psychology of narrative - this is no "just the facts, ma'am" kind of police procedural. In fact, Sturges is using the mystery frame (and the camera, and the music) to probe at the nature of truth throughout.

There are lots of theories about what's going on in the movie, and I've usually fall into the camp that says the movie is divided up into two parts: everything before Dana Andrews falls asleep on the couch is something like objective truth, and everything thereafter is a dream he's having. Very Tao. Very Hammett. Very Faulkner. Very Virginia Woolf. If not for the music in the second half of the film, it would be more of a puzzle to me - the characters seem to go places just a little to much out of keeping with the way they were set up in the first half, the visual style seems to change in subtle ways too (though I'm not adept at picking up the visual clues, so I'm probably not the best judge). The theme music that was mostly diegetic in the first half of the film becomes a lush commentary in the second half, saturating the quiet moments, underpinning the actions and relationships, giving everything a dreamlike quality. Like the movie has crept sideways into a Wagner opera without us noticing.

I think the key to Laura's success is that this self-reflexive filmmaking and meta-commentary on storytelling are layers atop the foundation of a dynamic and rich straightforward mystery narrative. It works quite well taken at face-value, with brilliantly-wrought characters in Clifton Webb's Waldo Leidecker and Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter. There's a whiz-bang thriller finale, romance galore, long lurid close-ups of Gene Tierney, humorous asides, bad guys losing and good guys winning. It took a second viewing for me to notice things that seemed off-kilter, and the score was what pointed me in interesting directions to try and resolve that unsettling feeling.

Tone is a tricky thing in movies, as I remarked many times in other posts, and when it's put over well it draws me in like nothing else. Preminger and Raksin are at the top of their game here.

May 08, 2008

Internal Music

The Piano Teacher
Elfreide Jelinek, 1983

Wow, no summertime beach-reading, this. Brilliant straight through, highly demanding, horrible to contemplate, and extremely rewarding, this is a novel that will stick with me. The kind of book that makes me want to learn German just so I can read it untranslated.

The writing reminds me of Henry James in its psychological density (and willingness to spend pages of packed prose on it), and of Virginia Woolf in its evocation of states of mind across broad distances in text. It's also something of a narrative tour de force...

There's a "trick" in the narrative style that boggles the mind (well, my mind) at first, then pays the reader back when he or she slows down enough to grasp the rhythm. Jelinek seemingly writes from many characters' perspectives at once. In mid-sentence, I'll realize that this isn't the voice of character A after all, but what B is imagining A to be thinking about her. Or wait, maybe it's how A wants B to imagine A thinking about her. Or is this all just what C thinks of the dynamic between A and B? Ultimately, it's all those things at once - not a mystery to be unravelled, but a web of interconnections drawn from multiple angles. Desires and needs and imaginations overlap and fold in on themselves. I can't say that the prose style is effortless in this regard, but neither is it laborious - it's taut and considered, and moves at a controlled pace. (I can't help but think that such twists would be more streamlined in German, though I know very little of the language, really.)

The characters are all self-conscious in the extreme. Every attempt at communication is so fraught with anxiety and problems that it's no wonder each character spends so much time inside his or her own head, imagining the gaze of everyone else. In particular, the protagonist Erika Kohut has a real desperation in her need for human connection and has absolutely no skills with which to accomplish it.

The drama of frustration and disconnectedness spreads out to encompass the landscape of Vienna too, and in a beautiful, organic way. I have a fondness for stories that investigate urban spaces and urbanism in general, and Jelinek does a marvellous job of it in this novel - the "diseased" relationships in the book are clearly slivers of larger social dynamics.

So it's fitting that music is such an important part of the milieu. They are cultural artiacts of Vienna, of course. They provide opportunity to speak about descent into madness (Schumann), the anxiety of influence (Beethoven, Schoenberg), the culture of interpretation, the expression of emotional states in sound, the calcified roles of teacher and student, etc. For the most part, it's music for solo piano that's under the lens here - no interaction with fellow musicians required. To some degree, I think Jelinek is commenting on modern fallout from the romantic ideal of the Artist: one who lives aloof from society, in a cottage with his piano and his muse, a tortured genius who isn't understood by contemporaries.

Really great stuff here - I know I'll be reading it again in the future, and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks great novels aren't being written any more.

April 26, 2008

Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude
directed by Hal Ashby, 1971

Well this was a thoroughly enjoyable movie, with a wicked sense of humor and that particular late-60s/early-70s aura of Significance, tempered with a light touch.

I suppose the big surprise in the film for me is its warm humanism. Judging from what I'd heard about it in the past, I was expecting a lot more heavy-handed morality and a soundtrack of axes being ground. To be sure, there's plenty of that going on, but at its heart this is a story of two idiosyncratic individuals, and it's no small feat that it finds ways to undercut the potential for grandiosity most of the time. Makes sense that the title of the movie is the names of the two characters.

The San Francisco and Bay Area locations are a huge attraction for me as well, of course. In fact, the more I think back on it, the more I think that the setting plays an important role (I can imagine a New York-based version, but it would require a more somber tone, to the detriment of the drama). The director spends a lot of time on the settings, letting the surroundings sink in and inform the scenes: the cold ornateness of the mansion, the artificially sculpted cemetery grounds, the crashing power of the pacific ocean, the cozy warmth of Maude's trailer, etc.

And the all Cat Stevens soundtrack? Well, it kind of reminded me of the zither music in the Third Man, to tell you the truth: sometimes beautifully fitting, sometimes very distracting, all the time energetic and amateurish. Oddly memorable, just like the rest of the movie.

April 18, 2008

Somewhere in Time

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger, 2003

OK, so let's get the bad news out of the way first: this is a very poorly-written novel. The prose is the kind where sometimes you find yourself wincing and feeling embarrassed for the author. Big ideas are largely absent, and the small ideas flare out quickly for the most part. The characters, relationships, evocations of time and place, are all of the kind one might find in a freshman creative writing seminar at a tiny liberal-arts college in the midwest.

Now let's get to what I like about it.

This story is a romance, and when it remembers that it's a romance, it can be excellent. The sci-fi time-travel angle is a natural set-up for exploring the myriad temporal aspects of what love is (how people are bound together over time, the feeling of "fatedness," the sense of flashback and flashforward inherent in long-term relationships, the way love is linked into biology, etc., etc.). Of course, I wanted a lot more of that - that's what makes the book special and gives it unique angles on such ideas - but the glimpses that are there do tantalize.

I'm also intrigued by a couple of the side characters, though that may be because the characters that are dwelt upon for the longest attain a certain drab similarity to each other. The author doesn't seem to want to dwell on the sadness in the minor characters, even when that's their most interesting aspect (every family is miserable in its own unique way, as we know). Perhaps it was the right choice to focus on the two main characters - it is a romance after all, and the book is just the right length as it is.

Reading the book was an interesting experience, because I felt I was reading a "treatment" of the theme of the novel the whole time, instead of a novel. Never full invested in the text itself, I'm sure it's partly my own imagination getting the best of me, but I kept envisioning different directions the story might have taken, different ways ideas might have been developed and investigated. All this, of course, points to just how compelling the germinal idea is.

I read that there will be a movie version, and I will be interested to see another "treatment" of the story in that medium. Meanwhile, I'm happy to have read the book first.

April 11, 2008


This has always been one of my favorite passages in Song of Myself. Something about it is speaking to me today, so I thought I'd share it here. This sense of leaning toward the future and how that emphasizes the potentialities of the present, restless contradictions just part of the whole, and why am I trying to write tepid prose about it when you can just read the lines?

The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

April 02, 2008

Eat It Up

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan, 2006

Well I'd been thinking about reading this one for a while, and when someone was lovely enough to loan the book to me recently, I dug right in.

The book is about food, the food industries, and our relationship to what we eat. Rather than get into the specifics of the topics, though, I want to talk about the author's prose style, tone, and structural choices, which to a large extent carry the book.

If you've read here before, you know that I'm not much of a nonfiction reader (unless it's music-related stuff). This kind of work really makes me rethink my stance on nonfiction, though, because Pollan manages to do things that really good fiction does: talk about what it means to be human, illuminate some of the complex web of societal relationships, imaginatively exemplify ways of being in the world, bring to life modes of thought and emotion.

At its base, this is a work of journalism: a (mostly) first-hand investigative report on the way we eat and the supply-chain that keeps the supermarket shelves stocked. It's also a personal story about the author's education in such matters and his experiences along the way. One aspect of poor nonfiction writing is the use of personal experience as a mere "hook" to make the big dry subject seem human-scaled, or worse, to provide a kind of comic relief from the weightiness of the larger ideas. There is none of that here. On the contrary, Pollan deftly uses his narrative passages as a springboard into reflection and, yes, even philosophy. We are always focused in the true subject matter of the book, just approaching it from different angles.

The author's job is made easier, of course, by the fact that cooking and eating are things we all do daily. The main structural conceit at play here - that Pollan is describing the whole story (personal and political) behind four meals that he eats - provides an opportunity to engage each of his four topics with varying mixtures of memoir, literature survey, first-hand account, conversation, science reportage, interview, recipes, etc. True, a couple of the attempts fall flat (one chapter in which Pollan has an imaginary conversation with the author of a book on vegetarianism struck me as particularly stilted), but even the less-than-stellar passages carry the thread forward. There are rich and cogent arguments being made here, and they have an immediacy to a reader who will eat many meals during the course of reading the book.

And make no mistake that this is a fascinating, multi-layered topic, very worthy of the deep exploration here and then some. It's a breeze to read and full of fun conversation starters, in addition to being impeccably well-written and well-researched. It's made me think twice about everything I have been cooking since the very first chapter.

March 17, 2008


Natsuo Kirino, 2003

Someday I will review Kirino's Out on this blog, which was pure brilliance on many levels. Grotesque, which I think is only the second of her novels to be translated into English, isn't quite the dazzling tour de force of the other book, but still has a lot going for it.

As in Out, Kirino here focuses on women's roles in contemporary Japan. She casts a wide net, but particularly investigates the culture of elite private schools and the psychological dynamics of prostitution. Yes, there is certainly a lurid side to these topics, but the treatment isn't particularly exploitative.

In fact, a little more exploitation might have been welcome, in a way. From time to time, characters come across as mere archetypes - stand-ins for ideas like you might find in a morality play. This wouldn't be so distracting in itself, except that it keeps bumping up against the gritty naturalism and twisted psychology that make up the rest of the novel. A recipe for cognitive dissonance that may be an artifact of translation, for all I know.

Kirino is at her best here when using the trappings of the crime story and the desperation of her characters to frame her sociological insights. The nameless narrator whose voice we follow throughout most of the text, is a richly-drawn and highly memorable character - full of human contradictions which reveal themselves bit by bit. Her attempts to make sense out of her own childhood, and the murders of her sister and schoolmate, are riveting.

So many details of place, character, and situation are vividly and poetically drawn, including a mid-book excursion into the lives of illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan, making the work easy to admire and hard to forget. I think it would have benefitted from an astute editor, however. I get the impression that the author was having trouble thinking of a good way to end the book, and at some point decided to pull out the old "this is all really a meditation on the nature of truth" trick. So fragments of the story told from points of view other than the main narrator, which seemed like tools of exposition and characterization when first read, are retroactively elevated to something more metaphysical. It's entirely possible that this was what Kirino had in mind all along, and it was just poorly executed, but to me it came off as a cheap trick, so the drama set into motion wouldn't need to be resolved on its own terms.

Flawed, but full of greatness, I still recommend taking the time to read this one.

March 12, 2008

Whitman on Craigslist

I was reading some Walt Whitman last night, as I often do, and this gem struck me as being evocative of personals ads:

Among the men and women, the multitude,
I perceive one picking me out by secret and divine signs,
Acknowledging none else—not parent, wife, husband, brother, child, any nearer than I am;
Some are baffled—But that one is not—that one knows me.

Ah, lover and perfect equal!
I meant that you should discover me so, by my faint indirections;
And I, when I meet you, mean to discover you by the like in you.

March 07, 2008

Podcast Adulation II

Black Jack Justice
produced by Decoder Ring Theatre

Since I've started taking a longish train commute every day, I've become a rather avid devourer of podcasts. Reading on the train is great too, but on days when I have only gotten a few hours of sleep (far too many days), it's nice to be able to rest my eyes and just listen. Since a large portion of my ride is underground, music sometimes gets swamped (or at least the subtleties of it do, and I like the subtleties) by ambient noises, and rather than enjoy it in a John Cage way, I'd rather listen to some people talking for a while.

Which brings me to radio play podcasts. If you've read here a while, you know I'm a fan of the hard-boiled detective fiction, and it probably won't surprise you to know that I like listening to old radio serials from the 40s and early 50s - Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, et al. Really fun and excellent stuff, and the podcast medium is quite perfectly suited for it.

There are a small number of groups out there performing new radio plays for podcast, but by far my favorite is Black Jack Justice, produced by a Canadian outfit called Decoder Ring Theatre. It's a detective show in 30-minute self-contained episodes, centering around private eye partners named Jack Justice and Trixie Dixon, who investigate the seamy underbelly of midcentury Toronto.

For me, the tone is pitch-perfect. If you've ever heard the later Sam Spade broadcasts done on NBC radio in the 50s, you'll recognize the combination of pulpy action, broad but wry humor, winking self-awareness, and attention to character. I'm impressed with how very few stylistic accomodations need to be made for this format and style to fit contemporary understandings of gender roles, the social contract, etc.

The writing is ridiculously sharp throughout - obviously someone's labor of love - in plot arc, character development, dramatic pacing, and fast-paced witty dialogue. The actors really strike the perfect tenor for this kind of endeavor too, playing it just larger-than-life enough without going into the kind of self-mockery that can ruin enjoyment. Voice acting is a real lost art, and it's great to see it making a comeback in this new medium.

Tremendously entertaining stuff, which you should give a listen to on their website, or get from itunes.

March 01, 2008


I have a daughter in grammar school, which means I have been exposed to the unstoppable pop-cultural juggernaut that is the Disney "High School Musical" franchise. One day, when cultural theorists are dissecting it (and yes, that day will come), I hope they take some time to notice this part of High School Musical 2:

I Don't Dance

It's one of the weaker numbers as far as the music and dancing go, but it's my favorite because of its wonderfully unabashed depiction of a homoerotic seduction. Yes I'm aware that there's the long-standing popular conception that musicals are always "gay," and yes there is a long tradition of thinly-veiled homoeroticism in the American musical (among lots of other kinds of theater), but this is Disney! This is aimed at pre-teens. This is one of the most wildly popular bits of youth culture in the landscape right now.

And it would scarcely be gayer if the jock character were singing "I Don't Have Sex with Dudes" instead.

I have to applaud the producers and writers and everyone involved, because they got about as far as they possibly could get without having two teenage boys kiss on screen (Give them time - maybe they can work it into the next sequel). A young generation is being exposed to some of the dynamics and tropes at play for queer teenagers, and it's all set to a funky beat. Thanks, mighty Disney Corporation!

February 22, 2008

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland
Philip K. Dick, 1960

This was an intriguing read, partly because I really had no idea what to expect. I didn't even look at the jacket copy, just saw the book at the library, picked it up, and started in reading.

I've read a few of Dick's science-fiction novels, and enjoyed them a lot. If you can imagine the author's preoccupations in the more famous sci-fi stuff, but pushed into the framework of an "American realist" novel (like maybe something by Steinbeck?), you'd get a sort of an idea of what's happening. All of his usual manias are there: sexual politics, class- and race-consciousness, anxiety, altered mental states, and most especially that vast paranoia that seems to fold in upon itself.

There are plenty of great scenes in the book, and the characters are more complex than I recall reading in other stuff by Dick. There's also a focus on what it was like to live in West Oakland in the 1950s, slice-of-life stuff that was very immersive and interesting. I have to say that it doesn't all hang together as a novel too well, though. It's essentially a handful of small stories, stitched together in a rather perfunctory way, and the seams really show. There's a bit too much repetition of themes for my taste as well - as if the same idea came up in two short stories, and when the author tried to fuse them into a novel, he couldn't figure out how to alter the storytelling to keep the same phrases and images from cropping up. Or maybe it was done on purpose and it just didn't work for me.

Very interesting, in any case, and I suppose if you are a Philip K. Dick completist or an Oakland historian, it's a must-read.

February 06, 2008

Spring into Action

Bullitt, 1968
directed by Peter Yates

The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007
directed by Paul Greengrass

For some reason, when the weather starts to warm up as it's doing now in my neck of the woods now, I get a yen to watch action movies. The first two I watched this year were an old favorite and a new effort, and I thought it might be fun to write about both of them together here...

Bullitt is part of the received history of San Francisco in pop culture (like Streets, which I wrote about before), and proof to those of us growing up there that it was an important place where exciting things happened. Narcissistic, yes. The movie certainly revels in its location - lots of outdoor scenes, ambient sound, etc., concentrating on quirky details of architecture and geography.

The plot is run-of-the-mill, but the pacing is tight. The French New Wave influence is obvious - open space in the dialogue, long takes with short bursts of action, a certain amount of stillness in the acting styles, focus on quotidian details amidst the "big plot" elements. By the standards of something like Bourne Ulitmatum, the action scenes and chase scenes are dreadfully slow, but for me they pack a more visceral wallop because of that. This is a movie made in an era when someone (well, a male someone, I suppose) watching was more likely to know what it felt like to take a punch or drive off into a ditch. The filmmaking relies on that a little, I think, in a way more recent movies can't.

The Bourne Ultimatum is likewise a product of its time. Thank goodness we've moved somewhat beyond the 1980s blockbuster action-movie explosion porn of Schwartzenegger, Stallone, and Seagal, who all came across more like cartoons that human beings on screen. I really think that one of the reasons the Bourne movies have worked is that Matt Damon has that baby face, and maintains a confused look throughout, even (and especially) when he's throwing bad guys at each other. He looks like he's out of his depth and just doing the best he can with his special skills under the circumstances - amazing how far just that facial expression can carry the movies.

It goes without saying that the first movie of the three was the best - after all, it was a romance gussied up as an action movie. But I'm talking about Ultimatum here, and its main feature is that the editors worked overtime on it. It's the pop-film equivalent of music by Brian Ferneyough - ridiculously intricate in detail, extremely overwrought, with intensity that never wanes. There's just enough plot to hang some emotions on, so you know why people are shooting at each other, but mostly this is one set-piece after another, beautifully run together.

Oddly, I puzzle over the casting David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney. They are visibly trying to bring texture and profundity to their characters, and good on them I suppose, but I can't help but wonder if the movie would have been better served by moustache-twirling cardboard cut-outs instead. This is one way that the movie is like one by the Three S's I mentioned above - our hero is pretty much a blank slate with a limited moral compass, while the bad guys have complex subtle motives (well, comparitively). If this isn't a microcosm of America in the world today, I don't know what is.

Matt Damon has the potential to become an action-movie "actor" yet - he came close in The Departed, I thought. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen is the epitome of that kind of screen presence for me. In Bullitt, we get large doses of slice-of-life (watching him buy groceries, for crying out loud, and not played for laughs!) that would be out of place in a Bourne movie, and there's a continuity of character from the domestic to the police-procedural which isn't found in your typical Hollywood action movie of recent vintage.

These were fun movies to watch in close proximity to each other once, but I don't think I'll do that again any time soon. Much better when taken separately.